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The First Virtual Reality Board Game

Lost Cities VR wants to change the way we play games.

From the polished intrigue of big companies' virtual reality pet projects to overblown promises of afterlife simulation Project Elysium, the VR industry is trying new stuff, being weird, and finding out what works.

For Winnipeg-based developer Campfire Union, that means making something completely new: the virtual reality board game. The team announced last week that it's putting together a virtual version of the strategic board game Lost Cities.

In Lost Cities, the board game, players put down cards to embark on expeditions to far-away jungles and inhospitable mountains in search of lost civilizations. In Lost Cities, the virtual reality board game, players would be surrounded by otherworldly scenery and environments. If the player wears headphones, she can be surrounded by the sounds of a jungle or the rush of water.

The traditional tabletop Lost Cities is pretty abstract. There's no difference, for example, between Central American jungles and Egyptian deserts, except for the color of the cards. For Campfire Union, that's where virtual reality has a chance to make a difference. The game would stay basically the same: cards on a tabletop. But instead of your living room, the play area is set inside simulated jungles or at the top of a mountain range, and your opponents could be on the other side of the world.

Let the player look up from the table and their cards and see wilderness extend around them for miles

Combining a simple but deep board game with a more interesting background makes both elements stronger, according to chief innovation officer Lesley Klassen. "There's something you can inject around emotional tone, because you're actually adding a layer to the gameplay that can't exist in reality," he said. "[Y]ou get to be in the expedition. But you still have the joy and the fun with the mechanics of the game. We saw that element of adventure as a big plus, a fun way to extend the board game beyond the kitchen table."

What the Lost Cities team is doing isn't completely new. It shares some DNA with one of the first experiences programed for the Oculus Rift, the Oculus Cinema. In that program, the users sit in a virtual movie theater, where they can watch Netflix in a huge, empty room. Lost Cities wants to use its virtual space as more than just a backdrop. It should be part of the game, part of the interaction.

The theatres, though, still simulate an enclosed environment. Lost Cities wants to recreate high mountain peaks, deep jungles, and huge oceans. Let the player look up from the table and their cards and see wilderness extend around them for miles. "One of the things we've learned is that we can play with the concept of scale, create vast environments, really help you lose yourself in a space where it's not confined," Klassen said. "Those theaters—you're still in a box."

As an experiment, the virtual edition of Lost Cities solves two problems that VR tech has struggled with. The first is motion sickness caused by the eyes perceiving movement while the rest of the brain sits still. Because it will be played sitting down at a virtual table, Lost Cities won't make (most) people feel ill after a few minutes.

Image: Campfire Union

The second is a little more intricate. As Klassen put it: distracting people lets you slip things past them. "One of the things that we've learned is that if you can get the user to be distracted by activity, they start forgetting that they're in a skybox that limits their sense of openness," he said. While other VR games chase a photorealistic ideal, Lost Cities can sneaks in animations and environments that perhaps aren't as flawless, but they work well enough to fool a distracted brain. "[Being distracted by the game] lets us pop in an animation, or bring in music in a way that people aren't expecting. Even a day/night cycle, those slow-moving things that create a narrative. [Players] don't notice what's happening because the brain is busy."

Lost Cities, like any endeavor into the experimental world of VR software, has a lot of challenges to overcome. They need to figure out how to let the player interact with cards without breaking the immersion, and virtual reality technology in general is still in its infancy.

But for the Lost Cities team, this project is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new artistic medium. They're hoping to launch this fall in time for the release of GearVR, Samsung's smart-phone based virtual reality headset, and ahead of next year's Oculus Rift, becoming a launch title for the first viable consumer virtual reality devices. If GearVR and Oculus Rift launch a new industry, Lost Cities wants to be one of the first games there, and while other developers race to create the first sci-fi or fantasy epic on the new platform, Lost Cities can quietly carve itself a place as the first virtual reality board game.

"I love the idea of experimenting with life," Klassen said. "I feel like this is a crazy social experiment, and I get to learn the tools to play along."